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Biden tells Maui wildfire survivors that the whole country will be with you

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden is making a promise to survivors of one of the deadliest wildfires in American history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: For as long as it takes, we're going to be with you. The whole country will be with you.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The president traveled to Maui to pledge federal help in rebuilding the historic seaside town of Lahaina. That's where the death toll has now risen to 115. Most of those victims remain unidentified.

MARTIN: NPR's Jennifer Ludden is in Maui, and she's on the line with us now to tell us more. Jennifer, hello. Thanks for joining us.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Hi.

MARTIN: So it's been two weeks since this terrible fire. Where are the survivors now?

LUDDEN: Well, you know, a lot of them are still squeezing in with family and friends. But now more than 1,900 have been placed in hotels or Airbnbs. You know, this is a big tourist destination. There are a lot of those. Amanda Vieira's (ph) family of four is in a one-bedroom with about three weeks of rent help from the state, and she is grateful. But she says because of damage from the fire, you know, cell service has been spotty and just applying for aid online has been incredibly difficult.

AMANDA VIEIRA: There's no Wi-Fi and stuff. And so I have to, like stand at a certain spot in my room to get internet, which is hard. And, you know, we lost two cars, a dirt bike, and you can't get anywhere to get Wi-Fi if you don't have a car.

LUDDEN: Vieira just got approved for a FEMA payment. She says it's $5,462 and it is supposed to be for two months' housing. But she says the place that she's in now is a lot more than that. And it's not easy finding housing here. It's one of the most expensive markets in the country. There was a housing shortage even before the fire. Vieira says her sister-in-law got so frustrated looking for a place, she and her kids just left for Washington state.

MARTIN: You know, that sounds like a huge challenge. So what are people being told about how long they'll even have this aid?

LUDDEN: Hawaii's governor has said people will have their housing paid into next spring. But a lot of people I speak with, they just don't seem to trust that, including Jeremy Delos Reyes (ph).

JEREMY DELOS REYES: There's a couple of resorts in this area that they're trying to open in 11 days, 12 days. So now where did those hotel rooms go, right? 'Cause they need tourism, or they think they need tourism here.

LUDDEN: Reyes was born and raised here, and there is some tension around tourism. It's helped drive up the cost of living. Of course, it provides many thousands of jobs. Several people have told me they see so many empty vacation homes, and they wish more of those owners would let fire survivors stay in them for a bit. And, you know, Reyes admits the idea of leaving, it's tempting. He's a high school teacher, and he works in construction. His house was destroyed. His parents bought it in 1970, and it was last assessed at more than $800,000. He says he could never afford to pay that much.

MARTIN: So during President Biden's visit, he and other political leaders repeatedly said that Lahaina should be rebuilt the way the residents want it. Are you hearing from people about that, and what are they saying?

LUDDEN: Very much so. There is a real fear that longtime residents will lose their land here to developers. And, you know, this place has cultural significance. It was the site of the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom. And you do see this over and over after extreme weather events. Rebuilding is expensive, and people get priced out. And in Lahaina, it was the older, less expensive area that burned. At least two apartments were subsidized housing, and last year, one of them fought a legal battle against a developer to keep it that way. Now, the governor has said he wants to find some way to ban property sales for a while. Some residents say they've already gotten phone calls from developers wanting to buy their land. And community activists have been rallying them, telling them to stay strong and not sell.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Jennifer Ludden in Maui. Jennifer, thank you.

LUDDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.
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